Soon after laying down our fork at the end of a meal, our body starts to protest. At first it’s a subtle, uneasy feeling in the belly; a sense of absence, a hole that needs to be filled, but ignore it for long and the reminders become less subtle as the stomach contracts in hunger pangs. Disliking being empty, it has sent a hormone to the brain, and that is telling us to eat.
After a couple of days, the body gives up on persuasion. The gnawing, empty feeling recedes, and the pangs dissipate. The body has entered survival mode, and it needs fuel: a sugar called glucose. We normally make it from ingested starches, but if we haven’t eaten we must look elsewhere – to our own muscles and stored fats. The body starts to eat itself.
As it does so we lose both weight and strength, and within a few days our ability to resist infection starts to weaken. Within a fortnight, we may lose so much muscle we have difficulty standing, and so much fat we risk hypothermia. Unable to produce key vitamins, we’ll suffer neurological problems and lose motor skills, struggling to see or hear clearly. Within a month we can lose so much chest muscle that we have trouble breathing, our throat may seize up so we can’t swallow water, and we risk permanent damage to the organs. Even for the healthiest person, cardiovascular problems, infections or organ failure may, within a couple more weeks, see us dead.
Hunger, ultimately, is a warning of impending death. Such is the strength of the body’s will to live that many of us – the privileged – will never hunger for more than a few hours, and some will never face it willingly at all. And yet, just occasionally, people suffer hunger for quite extraordinary lengths of time, entirely of their own volition.
In the early 20th Century, women protesting for the right to vote were jailed for their actions, and began hunger strikes while imprisoned: over 130 of these suffragettes were later awarded medals for their sacrifice. Mahatma Gandhi fasted 17 times in protest at colonial rule and sectarian violence, while Nelson Mandela staged a hunger strike in prison on Robben Island. More recently, this solemn tradition was extended by a 44-year-old British woman named Emma Smart.
An ecologist and wildlife conservationist, in November 2021 Emma was sentenced to four months in Her Majesty’s Bronzefield Prison for her role in protesting the UK government’s inaction on climate change. On sentencing, she announced her intention to go on hunger strike, and wasn’t to eat again for 26 days.
I’ve met Emma, if only briefly, and protested alongside her. When she announced her strike, I was so moved that, along with dozens of others across the country, I joined a solidarity fast in support. I fasted for two days, a measly 48 hours, but my hunger pangs were constant, and my tummy rumbled in strange and worrying ways. By the second day I couldn’t concentrate and had to put work aside, mostly passing the hours reading in bed. I felt a little as Orwell had described in Down and Out in Paris and London, reduced to “an utterly spineless, brainless condition… as though one has been turned into a jellyfish, or as though one’s blood has been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted”.
I’m not sure how much my solidarity fast achieved, but it did give me some insight into what Emma, like the others before her, must have been going through. And as the hunger nibbled away, so a question started to gnaw at me. I wanted to know what gives someone the strength to be able to ignore the insistent cries of their own, slowly dying body. I wanted to understand what it is, about Emma Smart, that allows her to face such discomfort, place herself in such danger, and go to such extraordinary lengths for our planet. So I asked her family.
Like many environmentalists, Emma showed a deep love and fascination for the natural world from an early age. Her garden bordered a field leading to the River Ouzel, and even aged six she would wander down to watch the fish under the bridge. Fishing with her father became a great passion, and she was happiest on the river or in the rockpools of Weymouth, where they spent their summers. Combing the shore in her baggy coat, she’d present nature documentaries, identifying the faunal flotsam and slipping interesting specimens into her pockets for later examination: her mother, Anne, still has the 8mm films, though no means of playing them. But Emma’s obsession with sea life could be a struggle for others. On their frequent visits to the aquarium, Emma would “literally sit the entire day drawing fish, making annotated diagrams of the different species”, much to the frustration of her impatient sister Clare.
To the surprise of no-one, this piscine preoccupation came to define Emma’s early career. She studied marine biology at the University of Liverpool then, while at St. Andrews, researched freshwater fish in Mexico. Degrees duly secured, she moved to the Middle East to help produce the first major documentary series on the wildlife of Arabia. And it was in this role, while exploring in Oman, that she made the discovery of a lifetime.
Surveying a dry wadi near the village of Hasik, Emma found tiny pools rippling with small, brown fish. Though rather nondescript to the untrained eye, Emma suspected they may be new to science and, putting her childhood training to good use, collected specimens for verification. Her colleagues concurred: though it would be years before it was formally named, she had discovered a new species.
Emma was to spend nine years in Dubai, first at the National Marine Aquarium and then with WWF and the Emirates Wildlife Society, and in 2006 she enrolled at the University of Plymouth to begin a PhD on the ecology and conservation of Eastern Arabia’s wadi fish communities. Eventually, seven years after her initial discovery, the pages of Aqua, International Journal of Ichthyology broke the news of Emma’s new species to the scientific world, and published its formal description. Named in her honour, it will forever be known as Garra smartae.
“Biologist immortalised as ‘Smart’ fish” screamed the Khaleej Times, in a headline that would have thrilled 6-year-old Emma from Weymouth Beach. Soon, however, her Arabian adventure was to come to an end, and it was another of her defining qualities that led to it. For Emma, you may not be surprised to hear, is unable to walk away from injustice.
We don’t seem to have a word in English for the compulsion to act in the face of injustice. In search of one I turned to Twitter, and was alerted to the Quaker term ‘acting under conscience’, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, and the Zulu philosophy of ubuntu. Others proposed conscience, moral compass, righteous indignation, sense of duty, and socialism, though none really capture the sense I was seeking: they may make us feel bad, when we see something unjust, but they don’t necessarily compel us to act. Thankfully, German came to the rescue as I hoped it might, with the compound word gerechtigkeissinn, ‘the urge to establish justice’. Whatever we call it, it’s a quality probably shared by many a great revolutionary, and Emma seems to have it by the bucketful.
As a youngster she got into trouble standing up for Clare, when their dance instructor embarrassed and bullied her over her errors, and it’s a characteristic Andy still struggles with. “I used to find it a bit awkward actually, because it would often be in social situations where she would see someone doing something and be like, ‘I need to go and tell that person what they’re doing is wrong’!”.
But it’s one thing to upset your husband’s sense of British decorum, and quite another to accuse your employers of complicity in corruption. While working in the UAE, Emma uncovered evidence of officials turning a blind eye to illegal development in the country’s protected areas. When she raised the issue, she was fired. In a choice between keeping quiet and doing the right thing, Emma chose justice despite the personal costs. It was perhaps a clue as to what was to come.
At around the same time, Emma was becoming increasingly frustrated with life as a scientist. Though she loved her research, she struggled in the rarefied atmosphere of academia’s ivory towers. It was, she felt, too far removed from the real world, and she wasn’t convinced that it would actually achieve anything. She’d later discuss her revelation in The Biologist: “I went through my whole career path, through academia, studying and working hard, believing that science was the answer and that the people who make decisions would listen to scientists. And then I had a very horrible realisation – that it is not true”.
It was a shattering epiphany, hard to take but impossible to deny. Despite decades of scientific warnings, emissions continued to rise, forests continued to burn, and the seas continued to be emptied of fish and filled with plastic. Clearly, science alone couldn’t steer the world from its dangerous trajectory.
Desperate to make a difference but deeply disillusioned, Emma quit her PhD, left Dubai, and headed back to Britain. For a long time she kept away from environmental work entirely and, losing hope that she could ever save the world, she decided to enjoy it instead. “The frustration and hopelessness was a huge motivation for getting out and seeing the world’s wild places… while they were still there”, she’d later write.
Emma and Andy decided to circumnavigate the globe in their 18-year-old Toyota, ‘Bee-bee’. They worked, saved, started a blog, sold their possessions, and, after over a year of meticulous planning, finally put Bee-bee on the ferry to Dunkerque in 2012. Over the next four years they’d travel for 858 days and visit 52 countries, before returning to England to plan the next stage of their trip. Their hopes were simple: “get jobs, earn money, hit the road again”. In 2019 they were readying Bee-bee to ship to South America, but then the blog goes silent for a while and it’s clear their dream has been set aside. Something had been happening, since 2018, that had taken over Emma and Andy’s lives.
That something was the birth of a new climate movement.
2018 will be remembered as a pivotal year in humanity’s struggle against climate change. A heatwave shocked Britain and Western Europe, baking the landscapes brown. Floods displaced millions across Asia, while droughts devastated crops in Argentina, Australia and South Africa. In the US, hurricanes Florence and Michael caused an astonishing $32 billion of damage as they flattened homes and devastated infrastructure. Even at just 1.1°C of heating, record-breaking extreme weather was battering the globe.
Yet it wasn’t the death and destruction that stood out that year, for there was nothing new about such news. Rather, it was a report, published in October, and written in impenetrable, technocratic language. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific task force convened by the UN to synthesise the science for use by governments, had a reputation for projections couched in caveats and uncertainties, but the conclusions of their 2018 special report were stark: if the world was to have even a 50% chance of limiting planetary heating to the (purportedly ‘safe’) limit of 1.5°C, we would have to immediately decarbonise the global economy. The world’s top scientists could not have said it more clearly: this was an emergency.
Meanwhile, the governments of the world did… well, not much really, except continue promoting fossil fuels. That year, the world emitted more greenhouse gases than it ever had previously. It wasn’t just that society wasn’t slamming on the brakes yet: it hadn’t even eased off the accelerator.
As the term ‘climate emergency’ entered the lexicon, more and more people began taking emergency action. In Sweden, a 15-year-old girl started striking from school and, in the UK, a group of veteran campaigners declared open rebellion against the British government. Within a year, Greta Thunberg’s school strike was inspiring 6 million protesters globally to take to the streets, and Extinction Rebellion had transformed the national conversation on climate change.
Arguing that the government’s failure to keep its citizens safe from climate change had sundered the social contract, XR (as it’s widely known) sought to move climate activism beyond mere protest and into the realm of non-violent civil disobedience. If the government failed to take adequate action, ‘rebels’ would refuse to obey its laws.
It’s a tactic steeped in history. The suffragettes used peaceful disobedience to campaign for women’s right to vote, and in India, Gandhi preached non-violent resistance in his struggles against the horrors of the Empire. In the United States, disobedience was a key tool of the civil rights movement and made historical figures out of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. When all else failed, when reason and polite requests had been tried and found ineffective, civil disobedience was a way to make change happen.
Andy will never forget the moment he first heard of Extinction Rebellion. Lying in bed one Sunday morning, Emma leaned over to show him the website. “There’s this new thing we have to get involved with,” she enthused. “It’s called non-violent direct action, and basically you have to stand in the road and block all this stuff and get arrested.”
Her excitement was palpable, Andy’s less so. “Oh God,” he thought, “it sounds like an absolute nightmare. She’s just going to dive straight into this!”
He wasn’t wrong. After her frustrations with academia, XR’s direct action approach really appealed to Emma. Finally, people were treating the environment with the seriousness it deserved, and taking to the streets in defence of life on Earth.
With no local group near them she struggled to get involved initially, but one day that spring she switched on the TV and there it was, right on the evening news. It was April 2019, the first ‘International Rebellion’ was underway, and activists had brought five parts of London to a standstill by blocking roads with their bodies. Dropping everything, Emma and Andy rushed to the capital, and soon they were blocking roads too.
For Emma, that rebellion rekindled something she hadn’t felt for a long time: hope. Having spent years on the sidelines, here was a way she felt she could make a difference, and it seemed to be working. The rebellion was the largest act of civil disobedience in modern British history and captured the news agenda, making climate change the biggest story in town. Within weeks, parliament declared a climate emergency, and the environment became the third biggest concern for British voters.
It was all the confirmation Emma needed, and she threw herself into activism full time. She and Andy founded a local XR group near them in Dorset, and helped organise the next big rebellion in London. Later she joined Extinction Rebellion Scientists, where she met other researchers similarly losing faith in science as a force for change. By participating explicitly as a scientist, she felt she could lend authority to the movement. “We’re not just seen as hippy activists anymore,” she would later reflect. “It brings legitimacy and people take it more seriously.”
It was with XR Scientists that Emma and I first took action together, in September 2020 in Parliament Square. I don’t think we met, but I remember seeing her shock of blond hair in the crowd as I gave my speech. She was standing under a statue of the suffragette leader Millicent Fawcett, only recently unveiled as the first female statue on the square. Dignified and uncompromising, Fawcett faces the Houses of Parliament with a calm determination, and a banner bearing words from her 1920 speech: ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’.
Two days later, Emma was arrested for the first time. Outside the Department of Health in Central London, videos show her standing in a road liberated from traffic by human blockades. Notes clutched nervously in hand, she’s explaining the links between the meat industry, deforestation, and the transfer of novel pathogens from wildlife to humans, when she glances up to see four police officers, all men, striding towards her in high-vis jackets.
As one unplugs the sound system, cutting her off in mid flow, she seems to almost grow in stature. “Hello,” she challenges.
The officers – unlawfully, it would turn out – inform her that her speech was in breach of conditions imposed under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, and that she would be arrested unless she left the area. Bewildered but unruffled, and with a little of Millicent Fawcett’s resolution in the set of her shoulders, she refuses and is led away to a waiting van as the crowd whoops and chants in support. The suffragette’s courage has called, and Emma has answered with her own.
If a fierce love for the world, a streak of gerechtigkeissinn, and inordinate reserves of courage are perhaps prerequisites for a revolutionary, another of Emma’s qualities that emerged from my interviews came as rather more of a surprise. Not that it should have, as I’d seen it in action the first time we’d met.
It was August 2021, in the cavernous Energy Hall of London’s Science Museum, and, as members of XR Scientists, we were protesting the museum’s sponsorship by the oil giant Shell. Our plan was to occupy the museum overnight, and resist eviction by ‘locking on’ to something immovable if required, but as usual I was horribly slapdash and didn’t even have a warm jumper. Emma, however, was a picture of professionalism, even down to wearing a nappy. She was, as I would come to realise, superbly well organised. It’s a quality that would see her end up in jail.
As uplifting and hard-hitting as the rise of Extinction Rebellion had been, by 2021 it was clear that it wasn’t going to be enough. The COVID-19 pandemic had taken the wind out of its sails and, for all the rhetoric, little had changed in terms of actual policies: the government was still pursuing the expansion of roads and airports, still backing new coal and oil development in the UK, and still subsidising fossil fuels to the tune of £10 billion a year. Despite its emergency declaration, it was showing no interest in taking emergency action.
So while the government dawdled, activists were planning a new campaign that would take civil disobedience to the next level, and Emma was right at the heart of it. Like XR, Insulate Britain sought to rock the boat through mass disruption. But rather than try to annoy the government into action, the plan was to embarrass them.
While calls for rapid decarbonisation are criticised as politically unfeasible, Insulate Britain’s demand is both clear – it’s right there in the name! – and a no-brainer. Heating homes is responsible for a quarter of Britain’s emissions and we have some of the leakiest buildings in Europe, but many people can’t even afford to heat their homes, let alone invest in insulation: according to the End Fuel Poverty Network, over 3.6 million households in the UK live in fuel poverty, and about 11,400 people die as a result, every year. By insulating the nation’s stock of social housing, the government could keep millions of families from having to decide, as Emma puts it, “whether to eat or heat,”. It would save lives, and take a big step towards eliminating emissions. It seemed unarguable.
Insulate Britain also upped the stakes, turbocharging XR’s emphasis on arrests and personal sacrifice. Using the vulnerability of their own bodies, activists walked onto motorways to block traffic, and sat there until removed by the police. Once released, they committed to return, again and again, until the government agreed to their demands or put them in prison. This was a whole different ball game to just getting arrested: Insulate Britain members, including Emma, were prepared to go to jail. And with the UK about to host the COP26 climate negotiations, they hoped the prospect of sending peaceful climate activists to jail would be too embarrassing for the government to countenance. They would have to commit to a home insulation programme instead.
Unfortunately for us all, it didn’t work. Whipped up by the press, much of the public turned against the protesters, and the government felt little pressure to concede to their demands. Instead, they sought an injunction in the courts; one that would send activists to jail if they persisted… but not until after COP26.
The protesters, as promised, kept going, with Emma in the thick of the action. “She was relentless,” explained Andy, a sense of wonder in his voice even now. “She’s super good at organising people, and she likes her whiteboard and highlighters. Which meant she felt that she had responsibility, because she was good at getting people to the place and making sure everyone was where they should be in a safe and appropriate manner.” Her organisational skills and proficiency with an annotated diagram, honed in Weymouth aquarium, were coming into their own, and she ended up being arrested multiple times.
On 17th November, Emma was sentenced to four months in prison for breaking the injunction, and immediately announced her intention to go on hunger strike. With access to the outside world taken away and her hands tied, control over her body was all she left, and she wasn’t to eat again for 26 days. One day for every year that global leaders had failed to address climate change.
The government still hasn’t committed to insulating Britain’s housing, but I don’t think Emma would consider the campaign a failure. To do so would be to misunderstand her motives. For, ultimately, Emma’s actions weren’t just directed at the government. The arrests, the hunger strike, these were not just demands to power. They were appeals to the rest of us.
Blocking motorways, foregoing food, these are an expression of the urgency of our crisis; they are what acting in an emergency looks like. Emma wasn’t merely protesting, she was showing leadership.
As she’s stated from jail “I stepped up, we all need to step up.”
When I started researching Emma, I assumed she was a truly extraordinary person. And, of course, she is. But she’s also just an ordinary person like you and I. She may have had the privilege of a good education and a life of opportunity, of freedom from hunger and war, but, reading this as you are, you probably have too. She may be driven by her love of nature, but we’re all driven by a love of something, aren’t we? Our families, our homes, our countries, our dreams? I think most of us have a sense of injustice too; certainly my nephews seem fixated on fairness, and they’ve only just started to walk.
Obviously, she’s more courageous and committed than most, but, ultimately, I think there are two qualities that set Emma apart. Perhaps most obviously, there’s her understanding of the stakes. It’s one thing to parrot a phrase about the existential threat of climate change, another to comprehend it fully as an imminent threat to our existence. We know that this is an emergency, but I don’t think many of us truly understand.
Of course, understanding alone doesn’t inspire action. Emma has always had the understanding, but for many years she didn’t act on it: she was disillusioned, jaded, and disempowered. She had little hope, and couldn’t see a way to make a difference, until Extinction Rebellion reminded her of the power of the individual. Now, she has agency. She has understood the words of the adventurer Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
In this respect, it strikes me I’ve been asking entirely the wrong question. Given what we know about the future before us, it seems odd to ask why Emma Smart is willing to sacrifice so much. The puzzle is why the rest of us are prepared to do so little.
Charlie Gardner is a conservation scientist, activist, and aspiring writer. He is an associate senior lecturer at Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (University of Kent), and spokesperson for Scientist Rebellion and Scientists for Extinction Rebellion. He tweets from @CharlieJGardner.
CALL TO ACTION:
There are no magic bullets, so take action in ways that works for you. Helping build better ways is just as important of resisting the destructive ones we have.